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Israel : Developing a sense of a shared civic identity

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by Mike Prashker

Ramla, Israel - With the current population of the world approaching seven billion, and over 50 per cent living in heterogeneous cities, becoming comfortable with diversity is a growing modern day imperative.

As an Israeli educator promoting the idea of shared citizenship, I am very familiar with this challenge. Israel is extremely diverse, and its citizens generally live separately, with low levels of familiarity and high levels of fear. Israel's Arab minority is in an especially difficult position, with their state – Israel – in conflict with their people – the Palestinians.

Research commissioned for a major new society-building initiative called Kulanana (a new word meaning "all of us" in an amalgam of Israel's two official languages, Hebrew and Arabic) has highlighted a profound lack of any commonly held sense of civic identity. Especially worrying, young Israelis were found to be less comfortable with diversity than former generations!

Starkly stated, 63 years after statehood, Israeli society is yet to develop a fully inclusive sense of "us", dignifying and providing a sense of civic belonging for all its citizens. This is especially important as citizenship is – also by definition – the only thing all Israel's citizens share beyond their humanity.

Of Israel's 7.7 million citizens, 80 per cent are Jewish and 20 per cent are Palestinian Arab, primarily Sunni Muslims. However the complexity does not end there. In addition to small Druze and Christian Arab communities, Israel's Jewish citizens are themselves highly diverse. Around 20 per cent of all Israel's citizens are Russian-speaking, relatively recent immigrants. The majority of Israel's Jewish citizens originate from across the Arab world and Africa, and the rest are primarily of Eastern European extraction. Religious-secular tension among Jewish Israelis is pronounced and closely mirrors deep political disagreements about the future of the country, the shape of our borders and even the desirable political culture, whether democratic or theocratic.

Reflecting and sustaining this complex reality, Israel since its establishment has maintained four distinct state school streams: Jewish-secular, religious, ultra-Orthodox and Arab – each one in turn with its own sub-divisions. This presents a severe structural challenge for educators working to promote respectful familiarity and cooperation between all groups.

Faced with this challenge, we felt it was essential to literally invent a new word – kulanana – to capture the three core themes of our work: citizenship, diversity and fairness, in a way that is meaningful to Israelis of all backgrounds. Cultivating an appreciation for the profound interconnectedness of these concepts is critical: citizenship is shared by Israel's 7.7 million citizens and diversity is one of Israel’s most pronounced characteristics. Providing a substantive sense of civic belonging through the provision of equal opportunities is essential for imagining and shaping a better shared future.

With 13 years of experience training teachers and providing shared citizenship curricula in hundreds of schools, my fellow educators and I have come to believe that while specific interventions are effective in improving inter-group relations, Israeli society is as a whole headed in the wrong direction in this regard.

So how can we respond to such a big problem?

Development of a consensual civic language has been a critical first step: a cooperatively developed language that enables all Israel’s major groups to embrace citizenship without threatening other highly-valued identities is the starting point. The shared citizenship model developed by MERCHAVIM, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) committed to shaping a fairer shared future for the benefit of all Israel's citizens through education, provides just such an approach.

But in an atmosphere characterised by pervasive ignorance and fear of "others", it is essential to extend our educational reach beyond schools. Through Kulanana we aim to develop multiple community, advocacy, volunteer and media platforms facilitating shared citizenship education opportunities complementing our school-based activities.

Fundamental to Kulanana is an appreciation of the inter-connected nature of the different aspects of cohesive society-building: most conflict-mitigation and society-building approaches in Israel have been dominated by single-issue organisations working in separate silos. The time has now come to develop an appreciation that all these struggles are in fact interconnected, relating to our most basic attitudes to diversity of all kinds.

Kulanana represents the belief that no single agency, however powerful, can solve Israel's society-building challenge alone. Strategic cooperation is required between NGOs, government, philanthropy and business.

It is not overly dramatic to assert that all around our shrinking planet – certainly in Israel – shared citizenship and diversity educators are waging an unprecedented fight against time. It is our job to develop and deliver effective new approaches allowing us to access, motivate and equip our children to cooperate and thrive in the diverse communities in which they are destined to live.


* Mike Prashker is Founder and Director of MERCHAVIM—The Institute for the Advancement of Shared Citizenship in Israel and initiator of the Kulanana initiative.

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